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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 19:23 GMT 20:23 UK

World: Europe

Russia's 'Mr Big' ridicules FBI allegations

The money laundering allegations go right to the heart of the Kremlin

A secretive Russian businessman has rejected allegations linking him to a possible global money laundering scheme involving billions of dollars.

Semyon Mogilevich, a multi-millionaire alleged to be a major figure in Russian organised crime, broke his silence at the weekend to say the accusations against him were the "delirious ravings" of the US crime fighting agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr Mogilevich told Moskovsky Komsomolyets newspaper in a rare interview that the FBI was constantly trying to win more funds from the US Congress with scare stories about the Russian mafia.

Investigators in the US and UK as well as Moscow are examining allegations that Russian gangsters, businessmen and senior officials may have laundered as much as $15bn in hot money out of Russia through the Bank of New York, including IMF aid.

"If I could earn - I don't mean steal - just a third of that money, I could say that I had been lucky in my life," said Mr Mogilevich.

Clean money

"Alas I can only read about such sums," he added.

[ image: New York Bank: Sacked one member of staff already]
New York Bank: Sacked one member of staff already
Asked whether he had ever "laundered" money, he joked: "Once I accidentally washed five dollars I'd left in a shirt pocket. I must say they looked a lot leaner and brighter after that. And the exchange bureau happily changed them for me."

Mr Mogilevich, who set up his headquarters in Hungary in the early 1990s, said investigators had often tried to persuade their Hungarian colleagues to arrest him but had failed to produce any evidence that he had committed any offence.

Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service last year estimated his personal wealth at around $100 million.

IMF money involved

Money laundering and capital flight has been a problem in Russia for years, and US officials believe the New York Bank scandal could be the tip of an iceberg.

The New York bank says it is co-operating with authorities and has not been charged with any crime.

In Russia, the country's acting chief prosecutor has ordered his security services to determine whether his office need to launch a formal criminal investigation.

US newspapers reported on Monday that investigators were examining whether IMF funds were among the billions laundered through the Bank of New York. The USA Today newspaper said $10 billion from the IMF could be involved.

The probe into the allegations of money laundering through the Bank of New York is just the latest in a series of financial scandals to hit Russia.

For several months, Swiss prosecutors have also been investigating possible corruption in the awarding of contracts to construction firm Mabetex to renovate Kremlin buildings.

The scandal goes to the heart of the presidential administration. It is alleged the company paid off the credit cards bills of Boris Yeltsin's daughters Tatyana Dyachenko and Yelena Okulova in order to secure contracts.

There have been calls for the US to halt loans to Russia, and US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has called for the world to "calm down" in the light of the allegations.

"Russian reform is not over ... It's going to take decades (and) the problem will only get worse if you isolate Russia," he said.

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